Prisoners of Conscience Vulnerable in Face of Pandemic

04/01/2020 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – While the rest of the world works to slow the spread of COVID-19 by reducing contact between individuals, some do not have the choice to distance themselves. Among this number are healthcare workers and first responders, but a lesser-known group finds itself vulnerable as well—prisoners of conscience. Already marginalized and threatened for their beliefs, these prisoners now face the threat of a deadly pandemic and no way to isolate or protect themselves in prison even as tens of thousands of their fellow inmates are sent home.

Iran provides a prime example of the discrimination faced by Christian prisoners in these times. The government in that country has furloughed some 85,000 prisoners as part of its response to COVID-19. Overseeing a system well known for torture, inhumane crowding, and unsanitary conditions, the Iranian government announced that it would be temporarily releasing these prisoners back to their families because of the disproportional threat that COVID-19 posed in its prisons. This clemency, however, only applied to prisoners with sentences of five years or less and skipped over the majority of prisoners of conscience who face much longer sentences under charges of threatening national security.

In Egypt, meanwhile, the government has faced mounting public pressure in regards to its own prisoners. In response, the Egyptian government recently released fifteen members of the political opposition. This move, commendable as it is, highlights the need to act similarly in other cases of unjust imprisonment such as those of Abd Adel Bebawy and Ramy Kamal, two men in prison for their Christian faith. Bebawy has already completed his official sentence, which expired in January 2020. He is currently in prison for an additional six months as authorities claim it is safer for him to remain in prison than to be reunited with his family.

Prisoners of conscience are an extremely vulnerable demographic, but their plight in prison is merely symptomatic of the broader societal issues that they face as religious minorities. Pakistan’s sanitation workers, 80-90% of whom are Christians, are being forced to continue their work despite not having access to the basic personal protection equipment—including, in some cases, shoes—that they need to do their jobs safely in the midst of a global pandemic.

Reports of aid being withheld from Christians because of their religion have also surfaced. A charity in Pakistan apparently refused to distribute food to Christians and a mob of radical Hindu nationalists attacked a group of Christians distributing aid to the poor in India. Elsewhere, COVID-19 serves to highlight existing issues such as those in Myanmar where hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people live in squalid camps as a result of ongoing ethnic purging and in Burkina Faso where more than 700,000 people are currently displaced.

The minority religious populations of the world are vulnerable at the best of times, but they need the attention and care of the outside world now more than ever. Whether they are in a prison or in a camp or simply part of a society that does not extend them the right to believe as their conscience dictates, the persecuted must not be forgotten in the worldwide response to COVID-19.

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